Thursday, November 29, 2007 48 Comments

Tryfon Tolides: an almost pure empty poetry

There are many reasons to respect the New Deal state, and many reasons to despise it. I'm afraid for the former, you'll have to go elsewhere. For I am a hater.

(Recently I found myself, albeit in conversation with someone I dislike almost as much as the New Deal state, describing UR as a "neofascist hate blog." I am not endorsing this label, of course. But I'm sure some would.)

It is impossible to count the New Deal's crimes. The list must include everything short of mass murder. And even that is arguable. And what is crime, really, at the hands of the State? Is there really a higher law? Is the concept even meaningful? Who shall pass sentence?

So I hope you won't accuse me of a failure of proportion when I say that, of all its crimes, the most despicable is the way the New Deal state seduced, devoured and destroyed the arts.

Conrad Roth and I have a little disagreement over the fate of the Western university. He believes that Western academic humanism, though definitely diseased, is not beyond repair. I believe that the entire Western university system needs to be crushed, broken, pulverized, autoclaved, autoclaved again, thermally depolymerized, mixed with radioactive strontium, and shot into the Sun. That is, if the Sun can handle it. If it starts developing huge festering brown spots after ten or twenty years, we'll know we should have gone with the Oort Cloud instead.

Science, of course, cannot settle this debate. Mere anecdote is our only recourse. So please allow me to present: An Almost Pure Empty Walking, by one Tryfon Tolides.

Please do not click these links. There is nothing interesting behind them. Instead, let's have a look at the cover of Mr. Tolides' book:

Attractive, ain't it?

I hasten to note that no one could possibly consider An Almost Pure Empty Walking a major work. In fact, it is unusually bad. But it is not atypically bad. And its badness has a kind of Platonic simplicity to it - an almost pure empty badness - that will help us, I feel, in the ugly work of diagnosis that lies ahead.

But do note that An Almost Pure Empty Walking comes to us from a major publisher, Penguin. Note also that it is a winner of the National Poetry Series, "selected by Mary Karr."

What does this mean? We'll see in a moment. But first, let's dive right in, with a randomly (I swear to God) selected poem. From page 23:

Because of the morning bird singing,
song will persist inside me.
Because of the sound of traffic,
I will always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains
Unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox,
and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair
because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.
What can one say about this poem? "Slowly, we turn toward love." I feel this should be uttered with a rich, caressing NPR diction, as if one were, say, John Hockenberry. "This is John Hockenberry, for National Public Radio. Slowly, we turn toward love."

As Mrs. Moldbug put it, "this is the kind of poem I was writing in 4th grade." Let's try another:

I pick strawberries in the garden. Three long rows
behind the monastery, before the midday sun gets too hot.
I set down a stool every few yards and reach out
my hands, first for what is visible, then shake
and lift the leaves for fruit and color.
With a slight pull, I test each berry's readiness
for being plucked, having found
my rhythm in the field. All morning
I fill a blue crate, carry it to the refectory, then rest
in my cell to the sound of cicadas and flies
through the open window.
The evening dessert is red glistening strawberries,
piled onto shining metal plates, next to glasses
of wine, vases of water, whole tomatoes,
bean soup, fresh bread, olives: others' work,
all set on a common table.
Afterward, from high on the balcony, the Aegean
ripples with infinite small lights, the trees
of the mountain move like the sea, the air brings
a mixed scent of pine and iodine and night.
Beauty is more evident in this quiet. You see it
through a clearing inside yourself. It is no mystery, seeing.
"It is no mystery, seeing." But this poem, while certainly no less banal, is at least longer. And we can start to see some of the gears inside the Tolides poetry juggernaut.

First, obviously, the author is Greek. As such he gets to write about Greek stuff. Greekitude. Mrs. Moldbug, proud holder of an MFA from this institution, has a good term: "race opera." While Dienekes and Arthur Kemp may still be debating the eternal question of whether Greeks are white (and what about Eyetalians?), Tolides delivers a resounding vote for the negative.

Imagine if you were from Virginia, and you wrote a poem in this style about climbing Stone Mountain. Or about your plebe year at VMI - before it was girlified. (Unlike Mount Athos.) Now that would be some real "race opera." But somehow I doubt Penguin would print it.

As a kid I lived in Cyprus for a couple of years, and let me tell you - Greek nationalism is the worst. It's a serious plague. For example, in one of the main squares of Nicosia, there's a statue which depicts a man throwing a handgrenade. The man is EOKA terrorist Markos Drakos, and while I can't find a reference for this online, I was told that the target of his grenade was a schoolbus full of British children. Certainly not shocking by EOKA standards.

Besides sheer Balkan nastiness, the ugly nature of Greek nationalism probably has a lot to do with its roots in the 1820s. This was the first major outbreak of romantic nationalism after the Napoleonic wars, attracting the support of proto-Che Guevara types like Byron (who it killed) and Shelley (who it probably should have killed). All the outlines of modern Third World anticolonialism are visible in this conflict, which lost none of its demonic energy over the next 150 years. The Greeks do seem to have chilled out a little lately, but who knows? It was Orwell who told us to "trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek," and I certainly see no reason to contradict him. (Snakes, in fact, are quite trustworthy.)

Anyway. This is a poetry review, not another racist rant. My point is that Arendt really was onto something when she drew that link between banality and evil. Tolides, with his mild Greek race-opera ethnokitsch, certainly does not intend the reader to free-associate in the direction of hand-grenades and schoolbuses. But if he was German rather than Greek, would he go there? Would he wax all dreamy about the Teutoburger Wald? Somehow I doubt it. And if I was in the room, I would tell him to stop. That makes one of us who treats all cultures as equal, and it ain't him.

But let's get back to the poem. Note that "From Mount Athos" has three clear parts. Part three is the last two lines. Part two is the four lines before those. Part one is everything else.

Try a little experiment, and see what the poem looks like with just parts one and two. Scroll back up and put your finger over the screen, or something, to cover the last two lines.

It's better, isn't it? It's definitely better. That little cringe moment has been removed. And now the poem is just...

Well, it's just empty. It really is a pure empty poetry. It has no content at all. All that's left is a kind of greeting-card prettiness. Our speaker is an American tourist on vacation. He has gone to stay at a monastery and spend a day as an ersatz, Marie-Antoinette farmworker. Everything feels fresh, new and real to him, just as it probably did to Marie Antoinette, when she was milking those cows in the stable at Versailles. Anyone can have the same experience as our speaker, unless of course anyone is a woman. In which case she can just rent a basket at Knott's Berry Farm, or something.

Have you ever been in a traditional Middle American home? The kind that might have, say, a crocheted angel in the bathroom? And a lot of oak, and maybe some Hummel figurines?

To you, it might feel stifling, tacky, and a little frightening. But to whoever lives there, it feels comfortable and safe and, most of all, meaningful. Which is why they decorated their house that way. No one engaged in kitsch thinks of it as kitsch. It is always profound and true.

Perhaps you have had the misfortune to attend a poetry reading. At least in many places, such as Berkeley, there is a sort of convention for those in the audience who feel moved by a poem. One does not clap (except at the end). But one can make a sort of noise that is somewhere between "oh," "ah," a sigh, and just an especially loud breath. "Ah, that was so nice," is the canonical response. (I myself often feel this way after an intense bowel movement.)

The type of poetry that Tolides writes - comprising at least 90% of the vast colonic output of the US poetry industry, the other 9.9% finding some completely different road to awfulness - is essentially the crocheted angel or Hummel figurine for the NPR market. (Note that NPR's ratings are skyrocketing.)

To the discerning UR reader, it may read as banal. But the UR reader is a very special cat. He or she is someone who understands Universalism enough to reject it. Perhaps you didn't, like me, grow up listening to NPR, but you surely have felt the call at one point or another.

Do you ever go to Starbucks? Perhaps you've seen the banal little messages they print on their coffee cups. Every last one of them is pure, orthodox Universalism. If I was still in college, I'd probably be trying to figure out how to make a batch of Starbucks cups that say
"Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don't trust an Armenian."
- George Orwell
and slip them in behind the register. But sadly, I am now too mature for this.

Mrs. Moldbug once explained a terribly useful concept to me: the idea of Seventeen magazine. The point of Seventeen is that it's not for 17-year-olds. It's for 14-year-olds. As they say in the marketing department, it's aspirational.

Starbucks, similarly, is aspirational. If you're anyone who's anyone and you live in San Francisco or Berkeley, you will not set foot inside a Starbucks. (I once had this horrible fat hippie woman tell me this at a party. She was boasting that never once, in her entire life, had she patronized Starbucks. I couldn't help but be impressed.) No, if you are a proper Bay Area Brahmin, you go to Peet's, which costs about 10% more and really does have better coffee. Or, better yet, you go to an actual independent local cafe, which certainly sells "fair-trade" coffee and probably has some kind of Communist revolutionary theme. (My first date with Mrs. Moldbug was at the now-deceased Cafe Macondo, which was basically a shrine to Patrice Lumumba.)

The point of Starbucks is that it allows an enormous slice of America, a slice certainly far bigger than the 20% or so who can actually claim to be Brahmins, to feel like they are part of the ruling class for 15 minutes or so. Perhaps it is different in Omaha, but what you see when you go into a Starbucks in SF is Vaisyas, Vaisyas, Vaisyas. Good ordinary people, who get to pay $3 for a pretty good coffee, and feel like they went to Harvard and work for a nonprofit.

And this, in a very similar sense, is the point of "almost pure empty poetry." The goal of the poem is to make the reader feel like a person who reads poetry. The "ah" is an essentially narcissistic vibration. It says, "ah, yes, me. I have just listened to and enjoyed a poem. I am the sort of person who listens to and enjoys poetry."

The tactics by which the almost-pure-empty poem achieves this effect are also fascinating. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the entire school is derivative of this one poem by William Carlos Williams. Williams was certainly a great and The Red Wheelbarrow is not at all unworthy of the attention it has received. But this note has been replayed so often that it's about as easy to appreciate in a pure aesthetic sense as, say, Norwegian Wood.

The problem of the almost-pure-empty poem is simple. Its goal is to express a thought which is banal and sentimental, but still feels somehow slightly fresh. Its method is to remove almost all content from the verse, leaving just enough to suggest some banal, sentimental Universalist thought to a reader who, being trained in the art of reading and enjoying almost-pure-empty poetry, can insert it without the feeling of being forced to do so.

Let's revisit "From Mount Athos" one more time, and see how this trick works. This time, remove not just part three, but also part two - ie, the last six lines.

The result is completely flat and content-free. It does nothing at all. It doesn't even begin to work. It is not almost-pure-empty or even pure-empty, it is just empty. It's like someone's vacation email got screwed up by a Greek ISP and acquired a few extra line feeds.

As we've seen, the best version of the poem (still not very good, even for almost-pure-empty poetry) removes the unintentionally hilarious part three, but keeps this:
Afterward, from high on the balcony, the Aegean
ripples with infinite small lights, the trees
of the mountain move like the sea, the air brings
a mixed scent of pine and iodine and night.
Now, is this good? I'm not sure I would go that far. But it is serviceable. As the poetic hook for an almost-pure-empty poem, it will do. It conveys a vague sensation of languorous, melancholy tourism, perhaps mixed with an ouzo or three. Pretty much how everyone wants to feel on their Greek vacation. (Note that that the speaker is alone, on his balcony, with the Aegean, and the pine, and the night. Ie, there are no yelling purse-snatchers on mopeds. No six-year-old Gypsy pickpockets. No one is even trying to sell him anything. He is just sitting there, with his ouzo, contemplating the delightful vision of a Greece without Greeks.)

But part three pushes it too far. It is, frankly, amateurish. It supplies the actual thought, which is just as banal and sentimental as you'd expect. We'd do far better to pile Pelion on Ossa, and graft it onto "The Tree":

Because of the morning bird singing,
song will persist inside me.
Because of the sound of traffic,
I will always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains
Unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox,
and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair
because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.
Beauty is more evident in this quiet. You see it
through a clearing inside yourself. It is no mystery, seeing.
Now that is a poem. "It is no mystery, seeing." I think I speak for all when I say, "ah."

But forgetting the banality of evil for a moment, it's pretty hard for anything in the verse department to match the banality of blurb. It's not quite readable in the GIF I made, so here's what's on the back cover:
In his debut collection, chosen by Mary Karr as a winner of the 2005 National Poetry Series, Tryfon Tolides weaves together poems that speak of desire, loss, and small boys. Tolides was born in a tiny village in Greece and his work is rooted in the mountains and the wind and the deep interior of that place; his poems express a longing and a searching for peace, for home, for beauty, for escape. These poems constitute a lament, whether they concern themselves with the difficulties of assimilation or the question of whether it is possible for people to live with another in a spirit of true understanding. They prove that the physical and the metaphysical can share residence, can even be one and the same.
Okay, it's "small joys," not "small boys." I just felt I had to add something to get you through that. You might think that Tolides can't be blamed for the blurb, since it is the publisher's responsibility, but in fact he almost certainly wrote it himself. If he didn't, he certainly had signoff. Isn't that terrible? Isn't it just the most awful thing?

And what is this "chosen by Mary Karr?" Again? Well, here is the interesting part. Inside the book, we see the usual acknowledgment page, on which is written:
Thanks to my teachers: Edward Ifkovic, Steve Straight, Elizabeth Cooke, Alice Bloom, Wes McNair, Dan Gunn, Pat O'Donnel, Brooks Haxton, Michael Burkard, Bob Gates, and Mary Karr.
This man has had more poetry teachers than some of us have had sex partners. (Hopefully this list does not overlap.) On the previous page, we see what they say about him:
"Because he sees with the humility of a searching heart, on the path to the spring in the village where he was born, on his pizza delivery route in small-town USA, Tryfon Tolides sees us as we are, as souls on pilgrimage to the world. The depth of this attention makes his poems not just confessions of the skill of his extraordinary mind, but revelations of the consequence of being."

- Brooks Haxton
Revelations of the consequence of being! And I like "souls on pilgrimage to the world," as well. You don't get more Universalist Starbucks-motto than this.
"How he surprises us – this young Greek poet – again and again in these brilliant, Chaplinesque, Zen-soaked, Vermeer-like cameos, craftily echoing Cavafy and William Carlos Williams and Gilbert and others. In the things of this world, which we so often fail to notice, Tolides finds worlds within words, pulling them out of his gypsy bag and holding them up to the light like the tiny diamonds they are, one after the other: the door, the dogs, the barbed wire fence, the dying mother, the holy air. This is his first book and already he has managed to stake out himself – and for us – a brand new, ancient, brave new world."

- Paul Mariani
Mariani is not listed as a teacher of Tolides. He is probably a teacher of one of the teachers - a sort of capo di tutti capi. I think I have his Hart Crane biography somewhere. I'll have to make sure I get it out of the house, before it breeds.

And then, of course:
"Tryfon Tolides has followed the territory set out in his native Greece by C. P. Cavafy and later followed (in geography and sensibility) by Jack Gilbert. But Tolides trades the darkness of those poets for a more illuminated grandeur. Tolides is the shaman of epiphany. He makes for his reader keen and particular moments of revelation seized from his fierce and fleshly occupancy on the planet. In the wide-eyed consolation these poems offer up, the starlight they emit, he conjures Tomas Tranströmer and other poets of profound spiritual power. At a time when the planet is in flames, he gives being human a good name."

- Mary Karr
Here at UR, we do our damnedest to give being human a bad name. But one must sometimes emit a little starlight, and I do have to marvel at the gall of mentioning Cavafy in the same breath as this two-bit hack, this perma-student, this droning and gelatinous bore. (Yes, the poems I have quoted really are typical. Here is another one. I'm afraid I can indeed think of "something after that." Maybe it should be the Oort Cloud, after all - you can't be too safe.)
However, this is not the limit of Ms. Karr's gall. Because what has she done? Serving as a judge, or at least meta-judge (I'm sure she did not actually comb through the slushpile herself), in a contest open to the public with a $30 submission fee, receiving God only knows how many entries, from aspiring poets all over America if not the world, men and women who slaved over their little precious gems, most of which I'm sure were awful, many of which I'm sure were quite a bit more competent than "The Tree," she has cut the Gordian knot by selecting one of her own students.

Believe it or not, this is actually quite a common practice. (Indeed, Tolides and Karr were officially nailed on this very site.) I'm sure that in the last year or two, if nothing else as the result of the Times story, some rules have been revised.

But this is a little like finding a pubic hair in your soup. "Waiter," you say, "there's a pube in my soup." Your waiter comes over and inspects. "Indeed," he says. And fishes out the hair. "Sorry about that. Enjoy your meal, folks."

Note that there is absolutely no shame in the way Karr, Tolides or Penguin handled this blatant conflict of interest. Deleting Karr's name from the acknowledgments would have been trivial. If it wasn't done, it was only because no one thought they were doing anything wrong.

How do you think moral compromise happens? Sometimes one person decides to do something appallingly, flagrantly corrupt. (Note how well the corruption of poetry fits my general theory - the National Poetry Series is, indeed, not what it appears to be.) But more often, what happens is a general decline in ethical standards across an entire field of human endeavor. Typically driven by a "race to the bottom" in which only the unscrupulous survive.

Now we can fit our pieces together, and look at how the New Deal destroyed poetry.

Poetry is an industry. It has always been an industry. It is something that people do. Writing poetry is work. You may be paid for this work in money, or you may be paid in the esteem of your peers, or you may be paid only in your own satisfaction. But you are paid.

Before the New Deal, poets were paid either in the esteem of their peers, or in book royalties. To say that poetry as a consumer business worked perfectly would be wrong. For most of the 19th century, the public's taste in verse was - at least by my standards - lamentable. Your mileage may vary, but I am simply unable to process any poetry written in the 19th century, except for freaks like Emily Dickinson. When I look at, say, James Russell Lowell or Tennyson or even Swinburne, I wonder how anyone slogged through this kitsch, these dreadful archaisms and Romantic artifice. (Of course, I'm quite confident that future generations will think the same of our NPR banalities, race-opera and refried surrealism.)

Certainly the best poetry of the 20th century was written from the '20s through the mid-'60s. These poets - I am particularly fond of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, etc - sometimes did reasonably well in the sales department, but they were invariably of a highly critical and negative disposition, and peer esteem was their real currency.

In the '60s, though, something awful happened. Poetry became a Federal jobs program. To use the terminology from my theory of corruption, it became a form of edupatronage.

The great disaster was the enormous expansion of higher education in the '60s and '70s. There is a reason so many college campuses have that abominable Brutalist architecture. Almost everyone who went through this gigantic, state-sponsored indoctrination machine had no reason at all to be there (please allow me to introduce you to Albert Jay Nock). They were there to be promoted in social class, perhaps also to avoid the draft. They were certainly not acquiring either vocational skills or wisdom and perspective. And nor are they still - certain areas of science and engineering, of course, excepted.

The overwhelming force behind this expansion was a massive injection of Federal subsidies. (Of course this was the Great Society rather than the New Deal proper - I hope you'll excuse me for seeing the whole as a single, gigantic, 75-year-old octopus.) Education, for New Deal Democrats, is just like immigration - a way of making more Democrats. Of course, no one thinks of it this way, but the machine works whatever its parts are thinking.

Here is the way poetry works now. The business is teaching. The currency is the book. Now that Tryfon Tolides has a book, and one published by Penguin at that (rather than, say, Dirt River Press), he can get a teaching job. His teacher, Karr, has "made" him. Just like Christopher Moltesanti.

(Hardly anyone will buy Tolides' book, for obvious reasons, but this does not matter at all. Except for Billy Collins, Jewel, etc, poetry is not an economically significant arm of the publishing industry. Major publishers, like Penguin, continue to produce it only because they would lose prestige if they shut it down. Poetry is like short stories - the only people who read it are people who write it.)

When I say "teaching job," of course I don't mean eighth grade. With a Penguin book, Tolides is qualified to teach creative writing anywhere that has an opening. Of course openings are scarce these days, because everyone with an IQ over 95 is going to college and the system simply cannot be expanded. The glory days of wild metastatic growth are long gone. The university is assuming its grim, Brezhnevian mature form.

And what has entirely disappeared, as the quotes above should make quite clear, is any sense of a mutually critical aristocratic elite. Instead, one ascends in the poetry world exactly the same way that one ascended in the Soviet intelligence services: by joining the right clique and remaining loyal to it. It is a pure pyramidal patronage system.

There is not even a concept of what it would mean to "succeed" outside this system. There is simply no independent pool of taste. There is only a vast river of books released by an endless stream of careerists. A consumer, even if he or she has the best taste in the world, will never, ever be able to filter this Ganges. Which is exactly why no one reads poetry anymore.

And worse, what these careerists seek is not even good filthy money. Teaching poetry is an abominable career. Unless you are ridiculously lucky, your students are subhuman morons, your pay is laughable, your prospect of tenure is nonexistent.

However, you are paid with something that no money can buy, the social status of poet. And no one - and I mean no one - in the world looks down on a "published poet." Whether it's men, women, poetry teachers, sheep or little Greek boys he prefers, Tryfon Tolides will always be able to get laid.

What a pathetic and contemptible system! These people are nothing but bureaucrats. And the situation is only getting worse. It's no surprise that degenerate tropes such as race opera, let alone these greeting-card banalities, flourish in the horrid Petri dish of the modern university. It is tailor-made for virulent Universalism of every sort. The more fanatical and banal your doggerel is, the easier it is to form alliances with other writers of banal, fanatical doggerel.

The blurbs I copied above remind me of nothing so much as the efficiency reports my father used to bring home from the State Department. Every one, if you read them literally, as if they just said what they meant in English, praised him as a sort of low-level Napoleon, a paragon of energy, discipline and effectiveness. Perhaps next year they would make him President, or at least a deputy secretary?

Then he would show me where the report was actually trying to rip him a new asshole, and ensure that he never got promoted ever again. Everyone's efficiency report looks like one of these blurbs. But those who know could tell the difference. I wonder if the same is true in the poetry world. Perhaps if Paul Mariani hadn't spent ten minutes curled up on the floor, just dying, shaking with massive spasms of uncontrollable hilarity, after reading "The Tree," he would have compared Tolides to Rembrandt or Michelangelo, instead of just Vermeer, and got him in as an adjunct at a good state college, none of this "community" crap.

And this is why no one even thought of thinking that it might look bad for Karr to select Tolides, and Tolides to thank Karr. It's because complaining about conflicts of interests in the poetry industry is like complaining about salacious language in a whorehouse. The entire industry is one giant conflict of interest - a classic self-licking ice-cream cone.

To be precise, the interest it serves is its own, and the interests it conflicts with are everyone else's. Because not even the students are served. Those who lack the talent to write poetry, which is of course almost all of them, are wasting at the very least their time and very likely a good bit of money as well. No one ever tells them this - it would be considered unethical. And as for those who do have talent, picture them instructed by one of these bloviating quacks, these bureaucrats of love, these revealers of the consequence of being.

No. I'm definitely thinking Oort Cloud here. We really can't be too sure.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007 21 Comments

The Jewish question and other links

If readers haven't had enough of the Jewish question, they may peruse this thread at Age of Treason, wherein M. Traven, Jewish Atheist, and I form an informal Jew Force and take on the Kevin MacDonald contingent.

(I find an excellent test for these people is asking them to explain the Altalena affair. Please post your responses to the thread above - not here. There really is such a thing as too much.)

I'm fascinated by the mind of the modern anti-Semite. While the story of the 20th century as a Jewish conspiracy is basically crazy, it is no crazier than many present-day beliefs that are considered normal and even fashionable. To be exact, the MacDonaldists attribute exactly the same pattern of behavior to Jews that folks like Jack O'Connell attribute to whites. The likes of Tanstaafl, NeoNietzsche, and Colin Laney certainly feel - quite genuinely, I'm sure - that they are having a "courageous conversation" about Jewish privilege.

The problem with the Jack McConnell theory of the world is that if there is anywhere in the US where white people feel it is socially acceptable to suggest that white people should cooperate on the basis of their shared whiteness, it is certainly not in the circles of power and privilege. Unless cell block D at San Quentin counts as such. And the same is true for Jews: while there are ethnocentric Jewish communities in the US, these are not exactly the people who run the New York Times. To say the least!

So to talk about modern, American white or Jewish ethnocentrism, without giving anyone the impression that you live on a different planet from the rest of us, you have to resort to the language of conspiracy theory. The motives of your enemies are either concealed, unconscious, or both. The more white people deny that they are racist, the more likely they are to be racist. And so on.

Not that I have read his entire oeuvre. But Kevin MacDonald strikes me as no more interested in actual Jews and what they actually think, than Jack O'Connell is in actual white people and what they actually think. Instead, both these factions invest a vast quantity of effort in constructing historical or anecdotal narratives which are not inconsistent with the premise of widespread white racism or Jewish ethnocentrism. They take it for granted that whites or Jews aren't just telling us what they actually think.

Whereas I know that black nationalism is quite common in the US, because you see it all over the place, even among the most influential African-Americans. Afrocentrism is quite fashionable. And not just among black people. If this were to change - if I were to see black Americans everywhere condemning Afrocentrism, denying they had ever even heard of Kwanzaa, giving their children names like "Ethan" and "Catherine" and "James," etc, etc, I would conclude that black nationalism was indeed on the wane.

Rather than having gone underground and morphed into a more sinister and devious form. Because secrets just don't scale. And as for the Jungian racial collective unconscious, it simply does not exist - enchanted as I am by the sheer breathtaking weirdness of race memory.

So I'm not at all surprised to find that the MacDonaldists are Noam Chomsky fans. It may seem incongruous, but there is a genuine shared perspective there. If only we could get them in the same room together.

The real tragedy is that anti-Semitism is not only a misinterpretation of history and reality, but (unlike black nationalism) a profoundly unfashionable one. Reviled, in fact, in all polite society.

If we cared what polite society thought, we would not be here at UR. I hold no brief at all for fashionable opinion. The problem with adopting unfashionable opinions, however, is that you really do need to be damn sure you're right.

When your opinions are both unfashionable and inaccurate - and when they hold no real promise of serving as a rallying point for a mob - they are unlikely to get you anywhere. Worse, adopting a worldview like anti-Semitism is such a drastic and terrible step, it is so socially and intellectually isolating, that stepping back out of it is almost impossible. If anything, it demands even more courage and conviction than getting in in the first place.

Anyway, I promised other links.

Frequent UR commenter George Weinberg, whose style of thinking is remarkably similar to mine, has a new blog. Please visit it and comment.

The great Carter van Carter, proprietor of Across Difficult Country, which may well be the funniest site on the Internet, has a new political blog, Craptocracy. Carter makes me look polite and respectful.

And if you are not amused by this post by Macro Man, or by his devastatingly hilarious Arthur Conan Doyle takeoff (part 1, part 2), or by Cassandra's inflationary almanack, you have either no sense of humor, or no interest in finance. And if the latter, bear in mind that - to paraphrase Trotsky - finance may still be interested in you.

Thursday, November 22, 2007 109 Comments

Why I am not a white nationalist

I am not a white nationalist. However, judging by the comments on the Ian Smith elegy, some of my readers are. For this week, I was going to put up another post in the Dawkins series, but Thanksgiving is coming and traffic should be light, so I thought it might be fun to wade into this wretched hive of scum and villainy.

I am not a white nationalist, but I do read white-nationalist blogs, and I'm not afraid to link to them. The undisputed champion in this department is Larry Auster. I am also fond of Vanishing American, John Savage, New Sisyphus, Age of Treason, and Old Atlantic Lighthouse. The two central organs of intellectual white nationalism in the US are American Renaissance and VDare. If there is a European equivalent, it is probably Brussels Journal. On all these sites, you'll find thoughtful, well-written commentary that will expand your mind. I'm not sure all these writers would accept the white-nationalist label - this is just my own description.

(The Internet is also home to many out-and-out racist blogs. Most are simply unreadable. But some are hosted by relatively capable writers, such as "The Uhuru Guru" or "Big Effer." On these racist blogs you'll find racial epithets, anti-Semitism (see why I am not an anti-Semite) and the like. Obviously, I cannot recommend any of these blogs, and nor will I link to them. However, if you are interested in the mind of the modern racist, Google will get you there.)

What is white nationalism, anyway? I'd say a white nationalist is someone who believes that whites should act collectively to further their collective interests. Much as, say, a French nationalist believes that Frenchmen should act collectively etc.

It is nontrivial to define the word "white." It is also nontrivial to define the word "French." However, "nationalist" seems pretty clear. Note that its root is the Latin natus, birth - the association between "nation" and State is not universal. In the Soviet Union, a Soviet citizen might be of Russian, Jewish, Kazakh, etc, nationality. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were thoroughly multinational governments, and the former categorized its citizens by a credal concept of nationality with no place at all for geographism.

This is rather academic. Another approach is to say that white nationalism is what people who call themselves "white nationalists" believe. John Savage has a good link summary, featuring a friendly debate between Steve Sailer (who is perhaps best classified as a Sailerist, a label I'm not at all afraid to stick on my shirt) and the editor of American Renaissance, Jared Taylor.

(It's also worth mentioning the still-ongoing LGF versus Brussels Journal food fight. Since I am neither a neocon nor a paleocon nor a conservative at all, I feel no need to take a side. In my opinion, both are right and both are wrong. Hopefully, by the end of this essay, my take should be obvious.)

Perhaps the best summary of the white nationalist case I've seen, however, is this essay by the Norwegian blogger known only as Fjordman. Fjordman is not a terribly eloquent wordsmith - at least, not in English - but he has a lot to say, and the essay is worth reading. (If you are interested in a weird, overheated '70s novelization of the same issues, you might enjoy the Great Racist Novel, Jean Raspail's appalling Camp of the Saints.)

It should be obvious that, although I am not a white nationalist, I am not exactly allergic to the stuff. Maybe this doesn't need defending. But I feel the urge to defend it anyway.

One (tangential) comment on the Smith elegy used the phrase "red flags." While I hate to strike the as-I-was pose - I have no idea who the commenter is, or why he or she feels this way - I have a pretty good memory of when I might have said the same thing. The first time I was linked to VDare, I had exactly this response. (In fact, the first time I found myself staring at a Republican blog, I had this response. But that was a longer time ago.)

The sensation is visceral. It is the sense of the presence of evil - of the Adversary himself. I am not religious, but I do believe in evil. It is impossible to fight without believing one's enemies are, in some way, evil. To believe one can be above this feeling of pure revulsion and contempt is not to have advanced to a higher spiritual stage, but to be an arrogant prig.

However, without denying the concept of evil, we can investigate our own use of it.

Why does white nationalism strike us as evil? Because Hitler was a white nationalist, and Hitler was evil. Neither of these statements is remotely controvertible. There is exactly one degree of separation between white nationalism and evil. And that degree is Hitler. Let me repeat: Hitler.

The argument seems watertight. (Hitlertight?) But it holds no water at all.

Why does socialism strike us as evil? Because Stalin was a socialist, and Stalin was evil. Anyone who wants to seriously argue that Stalin was less evil than Hitler has an awful long row to hoe. Not only did Stalin order more murders, his murder machine had its heyday in peacetime, whereas Hitler's can at least be seen as a war crime against enemy civilians. Whether this makes a difference can be debated, but if it does it puts Stalin on top.

And yet I have never had or seen anything like the "red flags" response to socialism. If I saw a crowd of young, fashionable people lining up at the box office for a hagiographic biopic on Reinhard Heydrich, chills would run up and down my neck. For Ernesto Guevara, I have no emotional response. Perhaps I think it's stupid and sad. I do think it's stupid and sad. But it doesn't freak me out.

Some friends of mine live on a street in Brooklyn where there is a Black Muslim storefront with TVs in the window, broadcasting Louis Farrakhan's Jew-hating black nationalism 24/7. To get from their compound to the subway, you need to go past a little taste of Rev. Louis. Should this freak me out? Should I see "red flags?"

Maybe I should. But I don't. And to make a conscious effort to change this would put me in the odd position of cultivating hatred. When I ask myself what Albert Jay Nock would do, somehow this doesn't seem quite the answer.

If you consciously endorse the method of guilt by association that makes any conceivable connection to Nazism taboo, you base this endorsement on moral grounds, and you believe in uniform moral standards, you have to apply the same method to Communism as well. Which means you must adopt a level of fanatical McCarthyism that would make Roy Cohn blush. While the result may be logically consistent, does it serve your interests? Or anyone else's?

So my conclusion is that the only way to restore balance and perspective, and escape from the Blank Slate Asymmetry, is to suppress the little voice in my head that pops up and says "Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!" Your mileage, as usual, may vary.

So this is one reason not to not be a white nationalist. There are a few such. And I feel I ought to work through them all, before explaining why I am actually not a white nationalist.

A slightly more sophisticated version of the Hitler argument is to argue that white nationalism is evil not because of what white nationalists did in the past, but because of what they might do in the future. In other words, the problem with white nationalism is that it is dangerous.

This is true in a certain sense. But it demonstrates a rather staggering failure of proportion.

Cute little bunnies are dangerous. They could hop onto your face while you sleep, and smother you. I'm sure human history records at least one death by bunny attack. And even if it doesn't, there's always a first.

It makes no sense to evaluate danger on an absolute scale. One must compare. Cute little bunnies pose a nonzero threat. They are certainly not as dangerous as leopards.

So what makes white nationalists so dangerous? How many Americans are killed by white nationalists every year? More than by cute little bunnies, I'm sure. More than cougars? Maybe. More than bees? Certainly not.

On the other hand, cougars and bees can't seize power and establish a genocidal totalitarian state. Whereas white nationalists could.

But so could black nationalists, Mexican nationalists, white environmentalists, anarchists, animal-rights activists, etc, etc. (Watch the movie Your Mommy Kills Animals sometime. It really does take a lot to send chills down my spine, but Kevin Kjonaas did it. The animal-rights people have a marvelous moral rationale for violence and even murder, and damned if they don't use it.)

The thing about all the ideologies on this random little list is that every single one is fashionable. No one is expelled from polite society for holding them. Au contraire. In many chic contexts, they are actually social lubricants. They certainly attract talented and ambitious young people, which is pretty much a necessity if you want to seize any kind of power.

There are entire departments at every university in the US which teach black and Mexican nationalism - not to mention the other three. A few blocks from where I live, on one of the most fashionable shopping streets in the entire world, there is an anarchist bookstore. Its window is full of books advocating violence, tyranny and terror of every kind. Etc, etc.

And Nazism too was fashionable. Indeed it was profoundly self-righteous. Perhaps the easiest way for a modern American or European to understand Nazism is to understand that a good Brown thought about preserving the Deutsche Volk in exactly the same way that today's Greens think about preserving the Environment. (Not, indeed, without some overlap.) In a world where this book is a bestseller, who is the leopard and who the bunny-rabbit?

White nationalism is the most marginalized and socially excluded belief system in the history of the world. It is an obnoxious social irritant in any circle which does not include tattooed speedfreak bikers. The idea that a white-nationalist conspiracy is lurking behind the curtain, ready to seize power in one terrible spring, really does make anti-Semitism look plausible. What's next, the KKK and Snapple? The Protocols of the Elders of Idaho?

So we see that, at present, in the real world of 2007, there is no coherent moral or practical reason to shun white nationalism.

Or is there? I can imagine one possibility which might make white nationalism genuinely dangerous. White nationalism would be dangerous if there was some issue on which white nationalists were right, and everyone else was wrong. Truth is always dangerous. Contrary to common belief, it does not always prevail. But it's always a bad idea to turn your back on it.

Here at last is our leopard. But could this be a reason to shun and ignore white nationalism? It is precisely the opposite. It is (or would be) a reason to investigate and understand it.

Say hello to the very courageous William Saletan. Mr. Saletan, following Amy Harmon, believes there is indeed a leopard. The leopard's name is human cognitive biodiversity. While the evidence for human cognitive biodiversity is indeed debatable, what's not debatable is that it is debatable. Since it's also the case that everyone who is not a white nationalist has spent the last 50 years informing us that it is not debatable, we have our leopard one way or another.

If you don't want Mr. Saletan and Ms. Harmon's courage to go unrewarded, perhaps you should consider reporting Slate and the New York Times to the SPLC Intelligence Project. Contact them using this form. You could also try the NAACP. After all, what fun is it to stick your neck out, if no one tries to cut it off? Can't you always tell a pioneer by the arrows in his back?

Mr. Saletan seems to genuinely believe that an admission of honest error, and a few nice noises about the future, can extract the entire system of power and privilege he represents from the remarkable corner it's painted itself into.

Unfortunately, the obscure doctrinal point on which he is admitting error is the most fundamental belief of his society. It is the political mortar of the postwar Western world. It can no more be admitted than the Soviets could admit that capitalism was the best thing for the working class after all. (I'm still not quite sure how the Chinese get away with this.)

Slate is not about to link to Alexander Stephens, Charles Francis Adams, or Carleton Putnam. But I just did. And talented and ambitious young people - especially if they've just had to sit through a diversity struggle session - know how to click. The leopard is real.

Of course, I am not a white nationalist. I am not arguing that you should be a white nationalist. I am just suggesting that there are many bad reasons not to be a white nationalist.

And there is one more. You could not be a white nationalist because you believed that the problems white nationalists worry about are not serious or important.

This is just a hoot. Suppose you are an alien and you are observing a country X which contains two classes of people, which we'll call A and B. You observe the following:

Every year, thousands of people of class B are attacked, raped and killed by people of class A. The converse is extremely rare - at least, rare enough to be a cause celebre. (BTW, I love the argument that class-A people attack, rape and kill other class-A people as well. As though this were some great saving grace.)

Large areas of X, including entire major cities, have been ethnically cleansed by the departure of class-B people fleeing class-A violence.

Versus class-As, class-Bs are systematically disfavored in competition for educational and professional positions.

Many, even most, people of class A accept a canonical ideology which justifies this situation as a moral response to unidentifiable, irreparable, and ancient wrongs, and appears to motivate ongoing attacks, which are often defended by responsible authorities. In fact, the belief that it is actually the class-Bs who are oppressing the class-As is widespread.

While class-Bs are a numerical majority in some regions, they are a substantial minority on the entire planet. Many respectable and influential people advocate the abolition of all migration controls worldwide, leaving the class-As in a perfect position to extend their theory of violence to a policy of global conquest and destruction. While this is not about to happen tomorrow, over the next century it is quite plausible.

Now. Would you, as a responsible alien obeying all directives for diplomatic communication with primitive planets, suggest to the class-Bs that there was some other problem that they should be worrying about instead? Something more important? Something even scarier? Such as, oh, I don't know, unusually warm weather?

Behold the massive crack infusion flowing into your arm. (Or at least trying to. Remember, kids, you can always just pull the needle out.)

So why am I not a white nationalist?

I am not a white nationalist because I don't find white nationalism useful or effective. I don't feel it helps me accurately perceive reality. In fact, I think it distorts reality. And I believe white nationalism is a very ineffective political device for solving the very real problems about which it complains.

If you haven't read the Fjordman piece I linked above, now would be an excellent time to do so. (Yes, the site loads very slowly.) Now, compare Fjordman's white-nationalist analysis of this problem to mine.

In Fjordman's model, we see two groups: White and Swarthy. White people, or at least some of them, are gripped by some mysterious masochistic urge to self-destruction. If Whites unite, accept even just the slightest touch of White nationalism, and act collectively, they can defeat the anti-White neo-Communist Swarthy jihad that otherwise threatens to devour them all.

In my model, there are not two sides but five. Three of these sides are white, two are swarthy. And we see no mysterious masochism at all, just the usual hominid struggle for factional dominance. One of the white parties (Brahmin) is ganging up with the two swarthy parties (Dalit, Helot) to apply a good old-fashioned whupping to the other two white parties (Vaisya, Optimate). Just another afternoon of nasty on the History Channel.

Not only does my model clarify the reality, it clarifies the tactical options. We see immediately that Fjordman is asking the impossible. His solution is simply for the B faction to dump its DH allies and unite with its OV victims. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Yeah, right! Perhaps Fjordman could be so kind as to inform us of the last occasion on which this worked.

Now, it's certainly likely that if the BDH alliance triumphs entirely and manages to wipe out all remnants of the OVs, the DHes will just have the Bs for breakfast. Judith Todd could tell you all about it. But has she recanted? Not even. By and large, the Brahmins are absolutely sincere. And since they are the ruling class, their ability to ignore reality is almost unlimited.

And, more to the point, what is the one ideology least likely to convince them to change their nefarious ways? What is the system of thought that Brahmins are most powerfully inoculated against? White nationalism! It's a strategy that couldn't be better designed to fail. It is almost eerie in its profound and incurable ineffectiveness.

There is another way to see white nationalism: as a strategy to motivate the OVs to rise up, cast aside their false consciousness, and throw off the Brahmin yoke.

If it's possible, this is an even worse idea than the lie-down-with-the-lion plan. What was the Second World War, if not an OV rebellion? Did it work? Even if it had worked, would it have been an improvement? Um...

Some of the most fascinating phenomena of postwar history are the rare attempts at actual military defiance of Universalist rule. These include the OAS in Algeria, the AWB in South Africa, and of course the Rhodesian and old South African regimes. Possibly the American Patriot movement counts as well. All these efforts have one thing in common: they were all spectacular failures.

The OAS is typical. What happened with the OAS is that they actually believed the great lie of the last half-century: that an insurgent movement with popular support cannot be defeated. The OAS was made up of French soldiers who had fought against a real insurgency, the FLN, defeated it, and therefore believed they could play the same game only better.

Of course they got their asses kicked, because terrorist or guerrilla movements cannot succeed of their own accord. They are only effective auxiliaries to an internal political conflict within a conventional state. The OAS had some political support in France, but not much, and not nearly as much as the FLN. No one was inventing creative explanations as to why France should go easy on them, buy them off with concessions, open peace talks, etc, etc. So the OAS lost and the pieds-noirs were expelled from Algeria, in a sort of operatic, Mediterranean Operation Wetback. "Non... je ne regrette rien."

I won't bore you with the story of the AWB. It is far more sordid and pathetic. And no doubt, if the Rhodesians had actually resorted to armed resistance in 1980, they would have been crushed as well. Probably the same thing would have happened to the Afrikaners in time. It may seem to us that they had a real choice in 1994, but how long would that choice have lasted? They had been folding in slow motion ever since the assassination of Verwoerd.

The problem with white nationalism as a military or political strategy (of course there is no line between the two - if your goal is to capture the government, your goal is to capture the government) is that however much it may manage to fire up the OVs, it fires up the Brahmins ten times as much. Since the latter are the ruling class and hold the whip hand, white nationalism remains a losing strategy. Ouch! Taste the pain, kids.

See also the anti-Semitic species of white nationalism. While a blatant misperception of reality, it at least identifies the fact that not all white people are on the same side. But, by describing its enemy as a basically-nonexistent ethnic-nationalist mafia, rather than a nontheistic Christian sect (which happens to have effectively assimilated many Reform Jews), anti-Semitism ensures that it can only score a hit by missing what it aims at. D'oh. And, needless to say, any remedies that anti-Semites may propose are, um, ineffective at best.

This is the trouble with white nationalism. It is strategically barren. It offers no effective political program. You can be as smart as you want and think about white nationalism forever, and you will not come up with any productive strategy for collective action, white or otherwise.

At its best, white nationalism offers a sensible description of a general problem. This problem certainly exists, and it falls under the larger category of bad government. (If allowing the old cities of North America to be overrun and rendered largely uninhabitable by murderous racist gangs isn't bad government, really, I'm not sure what is.)

But white nationalism offers no formula at all for how to transition from bad government to good government. Indeed, to the extent that white nationalism succeeds in anything, it motivates its enemies, keeping everyone stuck in the same old destructive patterns.

And the worst thing about white nationalism, in my opinion, is just that it's nationalism. Nationalism is really another word for democracy - the concept of democracy makes no sense except as an algorithm for determining the General Will of the People, that is, the Nation. And whatever its electoral formula or lack thereof, every nationalist government has seen itself as in some sense a representative of the Volk.

Compare this to the world of the ancien regime, in which French aristocrats had far more in common with Russian aristocrats than with French peasants. The world before nationalism and democracy was a world of mild wars, small and effective governments, personal freedom, and civilized high culture. Let architecture be the judge: all buildings from the 18th century are treasures. So are most from the 19th. The 20th was the age of nationalism, democracy, tyranny, mass murder, and gigantic concrete eyesores. (I live within walking distance of not one but two hospitals which are dead ringers for any Bulgarian secret-police headquarters. Although on reflection this is probably an insult to Bulgaria.)

Note that, before the coming of nationalist democracy, it was actually not a problem at all for wealthy, high-IQ people to live in the same society as poor, low-IQ people. It worked just fine. The latter served the former. They got paid. No one starved. If the mob wanted to riot, there were more than enough Swiss Guards to handle them. It was not Louis XVI's fictitious oppressions that doomed him to the implacable vengeance of the People, but his irresolution and gullibility that drew him to the deadly Anglo-American fad of popular government. (Try this history if you're unconvinced.)

The task of restoring the old world is immense. It may not be solvable. It certainly demands the eradication of all present governing institutions, a fate they seem not at all inclined to acquiesce in. But they are after all democratic, and for democracy to abolish itself is no paradox but a triumph - the only really satisfying way to terminate the whole great cult.

Universalism itself is a kind of nationalism. Of racism, even. It accepts only one nation: the entire planet. It knows only one race: the human race. Reading these sentences, any Universalist will nod his head and smile at the unsurpassable beauty of his own faith. Which in fact is unsurpassed only in its potential for gigantic and diabolical evil. As Nock put it, people who believe in world government are like people who believe that if a teaspoon of cyanide will kill you, a whole bottle is just the thing to do you good.

But you can't beat one fiction with another. The cure for Universalism is not the creed that Universalism hates most. It is a clear and simple understanding of the real principles of political, economic and military organization in human societies. White nationalism, like any nationalism, is a romantic and fictitious idealization of social reality. While it may bring some clarity to these principles, it obscures far more than it reveals.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 29 Comments

Ian Smith: 1919-2007

"Smith has been utterly vindicated." - Rian Malan

The last great Englishman
Is dead, and fuck who disagrees.
He once said to Henry Kissinger,
"Is there no honor in the world
Any more?" This man whose face
Was half shot off in the RAF.
"No," replied good Henry, and
Went on to fuck him. And of course
His nation - now a rotting ruin.
This small farmer, this militarist,
This pissant little pseudo-country,
England's chopped and pickled toe,
Weird ascendancy of the Adidas age.
The gods themselves contend in vain!
Still every harvest year is bitter.
The world has never stopped burning.
The revolutions cook and simmer,
They stroke their ire, they brood
And stir among the young, flexing
The bone returning in their fist.
They are all acts of the strong
Upon the weak. Believe none.
Harold Macmillan to the contrary,
Any bear may shit in any woods
And every pope is Catholic, and wind
Of change will often bring the plague.
And one day we will either be
Hacked to death in our own beds,
Or some similar and nasty thing,
Or Ian Smith, and Enoch Powell,
And even our own Tailgunner Joe,
Will have another life in bronze.
But do you know us? I'm not sure
We have been introduced. We are
The neo-McCarthyists. Our motto:
This time, we'll finish the job.
We have no chance of winning, but
We're not at least afraid to try.
Our saint is Julian the Apostate,
Our modal prince is Castlereagh,
Our favorite statesman died today.

Monday, November 19, 2007 174 Comments

Five problems with Google Android

While I'm certainly unqualified to discuss the usual UR material, we can't all stay on topic all the time. I thought it would be fun to actually exercise my actual qualifications for a bit. If you're uninterested, I apologize. (Next up: actual responses to readers' comments!)

Android reminds me a lot of the first cellphone OS I ever worked on, way back in the Mobile Paleolithic - 1997. "Liberty" was written in C++, not Java, and it used its own kernel rather than Linux. But these are details. The basic idea of an object-oriented application framework is more or less the same. I suspect Android is also not unlike the Danger Research (Sidekick) OS, as some of the same people are involved.

In other words, Android is a conservative design. It does nothing to disabuse anyone of the general view held by most programmers today, which is that the era of interesting software is over. Done, finito, stick a fork in it. Certainly this is the safe position. And when you have a trillion-peso market cap, why not play it safe? I suspect that if I worked for Google and you asked me to build a handset OS, I might well come up with something much like Android.

So I can't really blame Google for the fact that Android strikes me as kind of lame. I blame society. (I always blame society.) And I'm also pleased to note that Android's Java VM was designed by an old classmate of mine, a good guy who I hope is now very wealthy. (I never knew "Bornstein" was an Icelandic name. Maybe that's just what you get when you show up at Ellis Island with a handle like "Björnssøn.")

But that said:

First, Android applications are written in Java.

As Google puts it, "all applications are equal." However, some applications are more equal than others. Because all applications depend on native libraries that are not written in Java. And no application - and no end user - has any way to add any native library.

In the Android design overview, everything in the middle two layers (framework, runtime, library) is closed. For example, you cannot add your own presence manager, your own media types, your own browser, etc. You could probably build some of these things at the user level, but compared to the built-in versions they will suck.

An open computing platform is a platform on which the end user has the same level of control over the system as the manufacturer. Ideally, as in PCs, this includes the power to install a custom OS. (Handset manufacturers could build phones in which the user could reflash the whole Android OS, but they probably won't - if only for regulatory reasons.)

But there is a substantial difference between a device in which programmers have to use the Android Java framework and one in which it is only the default option. The latter is strictly more powerful. And describing both as "open" is an unnecessary overloading of the term. (Perhaps Google, since it places such a premium on corporate honesty, could call its platform "fairly open" or "pretty open.")

Now, no one at Google is stupid. They've built the thing this way for a reason. They reason that (a) no one but a total major-league geek wants a command-line shell or a C compiler on their cell phone; (b) deploying hardware-independent, portable native programs is extremely difficult; (c) a secure native interface is unheard of; and (d) Android Java satisfies the needs of 99% of application developers.

They're right about all these things. But they are still wrong.

Cell phone OSes, historically, have sucked. So it's easy to fall into the pattern of believing that they will always suck, and that if you make them suck 500% less, you have reached nirvana. Anything that goes beyond setting your own ringtone and wallpaper is a real achievement. If you can install applications, joy is yours. If those applications don't utterly suck, etc.

But this suckage is an artifact of corporate history. And not only is a cellphone a personal computer - it is actually much more personal than a PC. It is a true single-user device. If anything, it should be more customizable than a PC.

Can you take your Android phone, off the shelf, and reprogram it to emulate an iPhone? Let's say some vendor shipped the iPhone hardware with the Android software. Could you turn your gPhone into an iPhone? If not, why not?

I'm pretty sure the answers are (a) no, and (b) because the Android application framework is different from the iPhone application framework. Perhaps Android is superior to iPhone in all respects. But frankly, I doubt it.

Also, this idea that C is the native language of viruses and worms is an unquestioned assumption that needs to be questioned. Hasn't anyone heard of BSD jail()? How hard, exactly, is it to add this functionality to Linux? Isn't restricting the nefarious activities of machine code the whole point of an OS?

Second, the installable application is dead. It just hasn't noticed it yet. And nor has Google.

While calling it "open" is going too far, Android Java is certainly a very useful programming environment, in which many fine and useful applications can be written. For example, Android exposes a much richer feature set and application model than the abominable J2ME interface, which has all the disadvantages of a standard without actually being standard. (I do have to salute Google for giving Sun the middle finger. If not the whole fist.)

But Android is one of two programming environments on the Android platform. The other, of course, is the browser. Basically, on Android, you can code in Java or in Javascript.

"Web 2.0" has to be the worst programming environment to ever achieve wide popularity. It is incredibly buggy, poorly standardized, slow, and basically broken in every imaginable way. So it is rather difficult to see its very real virtues.

If you were actually designing your entire system from actual scratch, there is no way you would have one programming environment in the browser and another which depended on some arcane "installation" procedure. If you want to use an application, browse to it. If you want to switch between running applications, that's why the good Lord gave us tabbed browsing. And so on.

But again, Google does everything for a reason. If this reason is not good, it is generally at least sensible.

"Web 2.0," which is basically a collection of random unspecified features written by 23-year-old goth acidheads at Netscape in 1995, cannot even begin to solve the kinds of application problems that an Android Java application can solve. And the Web 2.0 platform is mature. You can slap layers on it, but the standard is unfixable and unimprovable.

For a company with the resources of Google, however, this is just small thinking. Suckage is not an obstacle to Google. Suckage is an opportunity. Or at least it should be.

A company with the stature of Google should be thinking hard about how to fix the Web. This involves delivering a new network programming environment (as opposed to a document delivery service hacked to be programmable). There is no shame in competing with a standard. In fact, by writing Android Java, Google is doing exactly that - both for Java and for the Web. Every developer of a mobile service will have to think: do I develop for J2ME, for Android, or for the browser?

But Android is not a better Web 2.0, nor anything like it. Instead it's a better PalmOS. Yet another standalone OO programming environment. With a networking API. Yawn.

One of the many reasons mobile computing should be new and cool is that, in the past, new generations of software appeared on smaller computers and supplanted their slower-moving ancestors. Minicomputers running Unix replaced batch-processing mainframes. Workstations replaced minis, PCs replaced workstations, etc. Today all servers run OSes developed for workstations and PCs.

If this trend had continued, we would have expected a new generation of cell-phone software to create a new set of standards, which would filter back to PCs. For a variety of stupid reasons, this has not happened. But it doesn't mean it can't happen. And if it's going to happen, you'd think it would be a company like Google that made it happen.

How would you build a single programming environment with the advantages of both Android Java and Web 2.0, and the disadvantages of neither? I'm not exactly sure. It wouldn't be easy. But then, building Android wasn't easy, either.

Third, Android's graphics framework uses pixel coordinates and immediate-mode 2D drawing.

Now this is just a mistake. I was looking at the doc and I could have sworn that someone had mischievously linked me to the Xlib manpages. WTF, guys? Is there a timewarp in Mountain View I don't know about? I know you're on the old SGI campus, but really...

The idea that, in 2007, anyone is writing 2D UIs with pixel drawing functions just burns me up. The right way to draw a UI is to construct a vector data structure, a la SVG or whatever, that represents the visual state of the screen in resolution-independent coordinates, and then just render the fscker. No, you don't have to actually construct an SVG text file. You even have a GL library in there! You can just treat 2D as a special case of 3D! People!

This is not just an esoteric developer issue. It has real usability ramifications.

I don't know anything about the iPhone's software stack, but I'm pretty sure it uses Quartz, in which all coordinates are device-independent. But I didn't even need to know this. The whole UI just screams "vector." As soon as I saw the demos, my first thought was "now no one will ever write another GUI which uses raster graphics." Little did I know that down in Mountain View, a crack team of hotshot Googlers was busy recreating the Athena toolkit.

With a lot of work, with good layout and compositing and so forth, it is possible to make a raster UI look pretty good. The Android UIs look pretty good. But they don't look anywhere near as slick as the iPhone. When you don't isolate device coordinates completely from the programmer, they leak everywhere. You are constantly deciding whether that line is 1 pixel or 2 pixels thick. And your designers curse you all day long.

You do need a couple of things to build a pure vector UI. You need a high-resolution screen, a fast CPU, and hopefully some kind of GPU. But - as the iPhone proves - all of these are available in products shipping today. There is simply no excuse for creating a new platform in which applications are not isolated from device-dependent screen coordinates.

Fourth, Android has no (obvious) standards strategy or upgrade path.

What will Android 2.0 look like? How will an Android application recognize which version of Android it's running on? What happens when Nokia decides to use Android and add a few special classes of its own?

As the history of both Unix and Java shows, standardizing programming frameworks is not an easy task. They tend to drift and fracture, and become very hard to improve or evolve. If the Android people have thought at all about this, I see no evidence of it.

The genius of the Web was that instead of standardizing APIs, it standardized document types. While at a certain point it developed a programming model on top of its document model, it started with a major advantage in simplicity. It is not easy to standardize data, but it is much, much easier than standardizing code. Genuine successes in library standardization are hard to find. As in the case of Java, the practical result tends to just be that one implementation is the standard. And forks are simply lethal.

Fifth, I don't think the business model works.

Sometimes I get an almost Soviet feel off Google. After all, what was the Soviet Union but a whole country run by a single company? Of course, Google is much better managed than the Soviet Union. But give it a few years.

When you are writing a large piece of software in order to just give it away, it has to be a labor of love. If it's not a labor of love, the task becomes Brezhnevian. Google will do just fine if everyone in the world accesses their servers via Apple or Microsoft phones. The commercial justification for writing Android strikes me as quite thin.

The quality of the user experience on the iPhone makes a major difference to Apple's bottom line. The quality of the Android experience has only a slight connection to Google's. Sure, everyone on the project would like it to succeed. But the same is true of every project, whether you're at Google or Elektronika.

So, in a certain sense, the people working on Android - who I'm sure are all very smart - are hunting wild boar with a can of spray-paint from the back of a pickup truck.

I know this feeling very well, because I worked at a company that shipped over a billion units of handset software, which we gave away for free - or at least cheap. (Our main revenue stream was on the server side - for a while in the late '90s, we were getting something like a buck per subscriber per month for a glorified Web proxy.) There is still a pretty good chance that you, dear reader, have my code in your pocket.

And frankly, it is not very good code. And the reason is that we were not getting paid to create the greatest possible experience for our users. So this task did not consume our entire attention. It did not occupy us the way a snake occupies a mongoose.

Android does not strike me as bad. It strikes me as okay. It's probably at least as good as whatever Nokia and Motorola are working with these days. (People used to call Nokia "the Apple of cell phones." Ouch. Papa's got a brand new bag.) But if the goal is excellence, Android has a long way to go.

Does it have any agonizing, irresistible urge to go there? What's the worst-case scenario for the Android team? No one uses their code, so they have to go and fix Blogger bugs for the next five years, while their options vest?

What's their best-case scenario? They ship a few hundred million phones, for which they get paid squat. What incentive do they have to make Android 2.0 the greatest thing ever? Suppose Nokia adopts Android and starts bombarding Google HQ with an endless stream of feature and change requests. How responsive will they be? How long will it be before they start telling the pallid, slant-eyed Finns to just code it themselves, or go screw a reindeer? And if the Nokians choose the former, how likely is it that their patches will wind up back in the main Android codebase?

System software design can do great things for humanity, but it should not be confused with missionary work. The iPhone has that carnivorous killer edge. It really is insanely great. Unless my initial impressions are wrong, Android isn't.

Thursday, November 15, 2007 45 Comments

Who the heck is Benn Steil?

Readers ask: who the heck is Benn Steil? And why should I care?

Actually, everyone should care who Benn Steil is. At least, everyone who has more than a couple hundred bucks in the bank.

Benn Steil is this person. He is also the author of this article. And if you prefer the dulcet tones of his gentle yet masculine voice, you can listen to him here. I don't mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but when the CFR and Ron Paul are singing the same tune, you can be pretty sure the fat lady is at least in the building.

Most importantly, Benn Steil is singing. Which means he's not quacking.

The 20th century was the century of quack everything. Perhaps most infamous was the great Soviet quack-geneticist, Trofim Lysenko. But quackery in its Eastern edition was crude and unsubtle. Its associations with brute force were impossible to conceal, and it seldom lasted long when that force was removed.

No, the postwar Western university is our true Valhalla of quack. Quackologists will be studying this system for decades, and they will certainly not get bored. The sad fact is that almost everything studied and taught in Western universities today is quackery. The only exceptions are some areas of science and engineering. For example, I'm pretty sure that chemistry and biochemistry are generally quack-free. However, if Lee Smolin and Peter Woit are right (and Luboš Motl is wrong), we are beset even by quack physics.

We certainly have quack poetry, quack computer science, and quack history. "Journalism," for example, is quack history at its finest. And figures such as Freud, Rothko, Mann (read the whole thread, or at least to the "Piltdown Mann" bit), Mead, and Ashbery will have to appear on any list of history's great quacks. Their achievements may be surpassed, but how can they ever be forgotten?

And then there's economics.

Pretty much everyone thinks of 20th-century economics as a seething nest of quackery. Including most 20th-century economists. All they disagree on is who the quacks are.

It is incontrovertible that quack economics is alive and well in the world today. It is possible that the Austrian, Chicago, George Mason, New Keynesian, and "post-autistic" schools of economics are all quack. It is certainly not possible that they are all nonquack.

So how can you tell the difference between a real economist and a quack economist? I'm afraid a bit more than $64,000 is riding on this question.

Here is my answer. Please feel free to refute it in the comments section. I have an open mind, but it tends to close after a while when it doesn't hear any good arguments.

My test is that a real economist is an economist who believes that any quantity of money is adequate. A quack economist is an economist who believes that increasing prosperity - or even continuing prosperity - demands a continuously increasing quantity of money.

There is a word which means "an increasing quantity of money." The word starts with an I. However, in the 20th century this word started to be used in a new way, meaning "an aggregate increase in prices." While the two phenomena are certainly related, using the same label for both doesn't strike me as the ideal way to elucidate the relationship. And when you realize that the new meaning largely dominates in modern English usage, leaving no word at all for the old meaning, the needle on your quack detector may start to 'pop' a little.

For this reason, I prefer to borrow a term from a slightly different department of finance, and describe an increasing quantity of money as dilution. If there is any ambiguity, one can eliminate it by speaking of monetary dilution.

(As for an aggregate increase in prices, the obvious word is appreciation, which can be further categorized as asset price appreciation and consumer price appreciation. The general use of the I-word in newspapers today is the latter. No precise or objective distinction between "assets" and "consumer goods" can be constructed, of course, but the same can be said for the index baskets generally used to "measure" consumer price appreciation. Any number produced by a subjective index is fudge - it may still be useful, but it is useful only to the eye. Anyone who plugs any subjective number into any mathematical formula or model is a quack, period. But I digress.)

So we can reframe our quack detector by declaring that there are two kinds of economists: those who believe that monetary dilution is essential, and those who believe it is inessential. Not only is this a boolean distinction, it is a very sharply polarized one - as we'll see. In short, the conditions for a great quack hunt can only be described as ideal.

Our razor is as simple as could be. Dilutionists are quacks. Nondilutionists are nonquacks - unless of course they are peddling some other brand of quackery.

There is no ambiguity at all. This test applies to any economist, or supposed economist, past or present, professional or amateur. If the voters of a democratic nation are infected with quack economics, their government will hire quack economists who peddle quack prescriptions. As Miguel Ferrer put it in RoboCop, that's life in the big city.

For example, one common belief among amateur dilutionists is that if the economy of some country "grows" (another fudge factor) by 3% a year, its currency should also be diluted at 3% a year. Any professional economist, quack or nonquack, knows that this makes no sense at all. No serious economist believes it in the exact numerical form stated above. However, it's a common belief among the general public, and dilutionists seldom seem to disabuse them of it.

Why is dilutionism quackery? This is actually quite easy to see.

Modern currencies, such as the dollar, are fiat currencies. In principle, there is nothing at all wrong with a fiat currency. There is no valid economic objection to paper money, and there is no economic connection between dilutionism and fiat currency. In principle, it is perfectly easy to imagine a fiat currency system with a fixed quantity of currency.

Whatever your monetary system, money is a good like any other. It is not a "measure of value" or a "claim on wealth." It is a commodity, whether virtual, paper, or metallic. (The reasons that people are willing to exchange so many nice things for money, and the reasons they choose one form of money over another, are complex - we'll save them for another day.)

What makes money money, however, is that most or all people who hold money hold it not in order to use it directly, but in order to exchange it for other goods. True, you can write a phone number on a twenty-dollar bill, and you can melt down a Krugerrand and make it into a gold cokespoon. But neither of these uses are relevant to 99.999% of the people who hold twenties or Krugerrands.

In other words, when most people make decisions about money, they are concerned with the exchange rates between money and other goods - ie, the prices of nonmonetary goods in money. Any change in their money that does not affect the quantity of goods they can obtain in exchange for the quantity of money they own will not affect their behavior.

Therefore, monetary systems can be redenominated neutrally, by rescaling a currency so as to affect all moneyholders in exactly the same way.

For example, Turkey recently stripped six zeroes from its currency. Each million old Turkish lira was converted to one new Turkish lira. All contracts denominated in old Turkish lira were rewritten in new lira. And so on. This did not amount to a 99.9999% wealth tax. It did not change the behavior of Turks, or anyone else, in any nontrivial way. Similarly, if Turkey had doubled its currency, so that every million old lira was now 2 million new lira, there would have been no nontrivial effect.

On the other hand, if Turkey had converted every million old lira into one new lira, except for lira held by Armenians, who received half a new lira, the effect would have been a tax on Armenians. If it had doubled its currency, but not doubled debts to Armenians, so that your million old lira became 2 million new lira, but if you owed 1 million old lira to an Armenian, you still owed 1 million new lira, the effect would have been a partial repudiation of debts owed to Armenians. And so on.

There is no distinction between monetary dilution and redenomination. If you dilute a monetary supply by 10%, you are exchanging 1 million old lira for 1.1 million new lira, whether or not you choose to think of it this way.

However, the type of monetary dilution that we think of when we use the "I" word is never, ever a neutral redenomination. There are many ways of creating new money - counterfeiting in a fiat currency system, gold mining under a gold standard, etc. None of them distribute an equal share of the new money across every unit of the old money. None of them rewrite contracts or debts. If they did, they would be neutral, and no one would bother.

One easy way to see this clearly is to imagine a monetary system in which money is measured in fractions of the outstanding money supply. Instead of a number like $1000, your bank statement would have a number like "one billionth," meaning that you owned a billionth of all the dollars in the world.

Redenomination in this kind of fractional monetary system is so trivial that the operation does not even exist. Moreover, we can redefine any monetary system in these fractional terms - as long as we can define the quantity of currency in the system. It is just a matter of changing our accounting convention.

So what would nonneutral dilution look like under fractional accounting? The answer is simple - it looks like redistribution. When you dilute lira owned by Armenians but not lira owned by Turks, the result is precisely the same as taking lira from Armenians and giving it to Turks.

Every nonneutral dilution can be defined as the combination of a neutral redenomination and a nonneutral redistribution.

And this is why dilutionists are quacks. Dilutionists are quacks because it is impossible to imagine a way in which the systematic pilfering of wallets could somehow be essential to commerce and industry.

We can categorize monetary systems as closed-loop (no new money is created) or open-loop (new money is created). Even the gold standard is an open-loop financial system, because new gold can be discovered and mined. 19th-century gold discoveries in Australia, California and Canada had substantial global monetary effects. But at least Mother Earth is in control of this particular loop.

Obviously, fiat currencies are all at least potentially open-loop. Typically the State, by persecuting all counterfeiters other than itself, controls the loop. For example, the most naive form of dilution is simply for the government to print money and spend it.

This is not how dilution works in most Western countries today. Rather, modern governments use their fiat currencies to issue perfect loan guarantees. For just one example, a conventional bank "deposit" in the US is actually a zero-maturity loan from you to your bank. This loan is nominally "insured" by a "corporation" called the FDIC, but this risk is not an insurable risk, nor does the FDIC store the slightest fraction of the funds it would need to make its guarantee 100% reliable. However, the guarantee is indeed 100% reliable, because the FDIC is ultimately backed by the US's power to create as many dollars as it wants, and the US has every political incentive to exercise this power.

(Another way to understand dilution via loan guarantee is to realize that the US's power to define a piece of paper as a "dollar" is no different from its ability to define a slice of your checking account as a "dollar." The US can fix the price of any good relative to its own fiat. If Congress wants to declare that every Honus Wagner baseball card has a face value of one billion dollars, it has all the power it needs to do so. But again, I digress.)

Why would anyone ever believe in dilution? Well, there is a very straightforward way to use dilution to create apparent prosperity: use it to redistribute money from people who are saving money, to people who are spending it. While typically the savers and the spenders are not the same people, if you can imagine a government program that would force anyone with a large nest egg to spend it all this year, you can certainly imagine the resulting boom.

Again, however, we see that dilution can accomplish no objective which cannot also be accomplished by redistribution. And what is the advantage of dilution over redistribution? Simply that dilution is easier to hide, and harder to resist. In other words, we will expect to see a state choose dilution over redistribution when that state is either deceptive or weak. Or, of course, both.

And there is an even more troubling fact.

The fact is that all famous 20th-century economists - Fisher, Keynes, Friedman, Samuelson, Galbraith, etc, etc - and 99.9% of working economists today are dilutionists. In other words, they believe that a closed-loop monetary system, or even a nearly-closed system such as the gold standard, is impractical or at least suboptimal.

We can even link to bloggers. Cowen and Tabarrok: dilutionists. Kling and Caplan: dilutionists. McArdle: dilutionist. Mankiw: dilutionist. Levitt: dilutionist. DeLong: major dilutionist. Und so weiter. Pretty much your only nondilutionists are to be found in the Austrian School, and even there you need to be careful.

Therefore, we are left with the conclusion that either (a) the above analysis is in some way wrong, or (b) 20th-century economics was dominated by quacks, and mostly remains so.

It's not at all clear why (b) should even start to be surprising. Didn't we already know that the 20th century was the era of quack economics? What was the Soviet Union but a giant outdoor experiment in economic quackery?

I say "20th century" because we observe an interesting fact: when we scroll back in time, we see that dilutionism makes itself quite scarce.

Madison wrote in Federalist 10 of "a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project." Burke is even more colorful:
When all the frauds, impostures, violences, rapines, burnings, murders, confiscations, compulsory paper currencies, and every description of tyranny and cruelty employed to bring about and to uphold this Revolution have their natural effect, that is, to shock the moral sentiments of all virtuous and sober minds...
Ben Franklin was the leading colonial enthusiast of open-loop finance, a perspective not at all inconsistent with his general harebrainedness. The fate of the Continental dollar, not to mention the French assignat, did a reasonably good job of discrediting dilutionism. Even Lincoln's greenbacks were formally limited in supply, and after the war this limit held.

In general, anyone who openly proposed outright dilutionism in the 19th century was treated as a monetary crank - much as Ron Paul is now for his espousal of the gold standard. (Frum's arguments, if you can call them that, are quite typical of the canon. At least he's in good company - not just with the 20th century's top economists, but also one of its great poets.)

But even the classical gold standard of the 19th century was quite diluted. The 19th-century banking system never had anything like enough gold to redeem all current claims in metal. Frequent panics and cycles were the result, culminating in the events of the early 1930s, in which a worldwide rush for redemption eliminated the last vestiges of closed-loop finance.

To find what Austrian economists call a "100%-reserve" monetary system, you have to look in more obscure corners of history - such as the Amsterdamsche Wisselbank. Or, as Condy Raguet claimed in 1840, Gibraltar:
Such being the theory of this branch of my subject, I have the satisfaction to state in regard to the practice under it, upon the testimony of a respectable American merchant, who resided and carried on extensive operations for near twenty years at Gibraltar, where there has never been any but a metallic currency, that he never knew during that whole period, such a thing as a general pressure for money. He has known individuals fail from incautious speculation, or indiscreet advances, or expensive living; but he never saw a time that money was not readily obtainable, at the ordinary rate of interest, by any merchant in good credit. He assured me, that no such thing as a general rise or fall in the prices of commodities, or property was known there; and that so satisfied were the inhabitants of the advantages they enjoyed from a metallic currency, although attended by the inconvenience of keeping in iron chests, and of counting large sums in Spanish dollars and doubloons, that several attempts to establish a bank there were put down almost by common consent.
I'm not sure on the details, but I'm afraid there are banks in Gibraltar now. However, if you prefer to store your portfolio in doubloons, there is always Jersey. Yes - in fact, this is exactly what Benn Steil is talking about.

See also Sebastian Mallaby, in Monday's Washington Post. Again, the CFR rears its ugly head.

Basically, what we're looking at here is the harsh but necessary process of waking up from the last century. There is a reason that quackery, in economics and poetry and nutrition and painting and history and psychology and paleoclimatology and computer science and just about any other department you can name, did so well in the 20th-century university system. Reality knows no master, but quackery is useful. Sometimes it's even profitable.

And will we end up back on the gold standard? Possibly. I really have no idea.

As Lech Walesa used to say, it's easy to turn an aquarium into fish soup. It's a lot harder to turn fish soup into an aquarium. Likewise, it's easy to go from a closed-loop currency to an open-loop currency. Going back, on the other hand...

In the '80s and '90s, governments found it not all that hard to reverse quack central planning. Often the corporations nationalized in the '30s through the '60s were even structurally intact, and could just be resold. Reprivatizing the monetary system is a completely different level of difficulty. It involves revising not just decades, but centuries, of Western financial practice.

Worse, any transition to a fully backed gold standard implies a preposterous discontinuity in the gold price. If such a transition is officially planned, it would demand a level of secrecy and coordinated execution that would make the CFR look like MySpace. If it happens spontaneously in the market, as Steil suggests - the mind boggles. I can imagine how this could happen on a purely economic level. I can't imagine how it would interact with politics.

But history is out there. It has not been repealed. The present is not permanent. In fact, to the future, it may look pretty strange.

[BTW: I know I promised to wrap up the Dawkins series this week. However, on further reflection, I feel it may actually need to be not ended, but extended. Hopefully this week's posts have provided UR readers with a wider window on the alternate reality around us.]